The Scourge of Sci-Fi

hal duncan

Ordure and Bullshit

“Nine tenths of science fiction is crud. Of course, nine tenths of everything is crud.”
Theodore Sturgeon

In the uptown district of Literature and the midtown district of Mainstream, so the story goes, the high-brow and the mid-brow all turn their noses up when they glance downtown, in the direction of Genre. Fairy tales for children, they sneer. On the door of the Bistro de Critique there was for a good many years a sign that read, “No Genre allowed.” The nearest they ever got to a genre label is General Fiction — a term with an empty definition if ever there was one, catch-all for a host of idioms and idiosyncracies. No, genre fiction just isn’t de rigeur there, so the story goes. So, fuck em, we say. Fuck the mundanes of Mainstream, the elitists of Literature. We’re Genre and proud of it.

We have plenty to be proud of. Even during the Golden Age, the boundaries were blurred as to what exactly constituted science fiction, and in the SF Café that made for a dynamic melting pot. Claiming the core of the field, those tables right in the centre of the SF Café, was that Science Fiction characterised by its futurological fantasias of space travel, robots, contact with aliens, off-world colonies. They owned the place, and with just cause. For all that this mode was born from the pulps and inherited the callow, shallow Rocket Age Romanticism, Old Man Campbell had brought something new to the table, a Rationalist bent that called for writers to level up their intellectual game. And they had, turning an idiom of Boy’s Own Adventures to more gnarly purposes — like the social commentary and critique of Pohl & Kornbluth’s 1952 satire THE SPACE MERCHANTS. Edging into this meanwhile were the visions of writers with even subtler agendas, outsiders like Orwell or insiders like Bester who saw even greater potential in this science fiction. In their disregard for, or subversive approach to, the pulp formulae, these writers sowed the seeds of at least one revolution that was to come in the shape of the New Wave. And the feminist sf of the 70s? And Cyberpunk?

Damn straight, we’re Genre. And we know that means Delany, Butler, Gibson, and a thousand other things.

It’s a dangerous game though, that pride, because when we turn this noun into an adjective or a genre label in its own right — saying this is genre fiction, or simply this is Genre — we’re buying into the very rhetoric of abjection that built the ghetto walls around us. It is a term that functions in the same way coloured does. Skin colour is a quality all people have, all of us literally of some specific colour just as every work is of some specific genre — my pale pinky-biege no less a colour than your deep brown, my contemporary realism no less a genre than your science fiction. But the term coloured people twists language itself to establish an abjected Other, posit people of certain specific skin-colours as on the flip-side of a default “white people,” posits those privileged people as lacking that quality of being Coloured. So too the term genre fiction twists language to establish its own abject Other, to posit fictions of certain specific genres as on the flip-side of a default “general fiction,” posits those privileged fictions as lacking that quality of being Genre.

Of course, the reality is those works of general fiction are of genres, idioms with their own conventions and cliches, and it doesn’t take much for them to become genres, definitions closed, works formulated to the factory-line level of product. Sometimes they’ll be named — like the Chick-Lit of Fielding-style BRIDGET DRONE’S DIARY — and exiled to the ghetto with the rest of us genre scum. Sometimes they manage to… pass, you might say, despite the giveaway packaging. One glance at that sepia-tinted photograph cover, say, fading to white at the edge, that picture of a 1930s child in hobnail boots on a tenemented street, and you recognise that Kitchen Sink Realist Family Memoir Melodrama a la ANGELA’S GRIMY, GRITTY, GRIM, GRIEF-STRICKEN AND TEAR-SODDEN ASHES.

But that’s not fiction of a genre. Well, it’s not genre fiction. Well, it’s not Genre.

There is of course a political purpose in taking a term coded with abjection and reclaiming it. Everyone has some strange quality, some idiosyncratic foible, some quirk of queerness. Where some of those idiosyncracies have become the focus of abjection with the label “queer,” some of us who find ourselves so-labeled choose to make that term our own. (Some even adopt the same capitalisation by which Blacks assert ethnic identity, the capitalisation I’m using here to signal labels of political identity versus descriptors, Science Fiction versus science fiction.) The accusation becomes an assertion. Yeah, we’re queer… noticeably unusual in our sexual tastes, non-average. So fucking what? If you have an issue with that, baby, as Old Bill Burroughs used to say: I am not innarested in your condition.

Yeah, we’re Genre… our fiction noticeably idiomatic in our aesthetic tastes, employing distinct strategies and styles. If you have an issue with that, let me introduce you to my friend, the sonnet. I could carve those fourteen lines into your skin with a scalpel. I’ll even write it backwards so you can read it in the mirror every day until you appreciate the rigour of formal restraint and the capacities of poetry not limited by genre but unleashed by it, loosed through it.

But still, back in the SF Café, even in the Heyday of the Hard, with Old Man Campbell calling the shots, it’s not hard to see where the sneers and jeers found their source. Sturgeon’s Law doesn’t say that ninety percent is of no consequence.

Down in the SF Café back then, the menu was varied but the place still carried a legacy of its origins as a junk food joint. If the market encompassed literature geeks with tastes for more mature fare, it was focused, as it always had been, on a continuing — indeed burgeoning — audience of adolescent pulp geeks who wanted romantic adventure stories with exciting trimmings. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, John Carter — the heart of this genre lay with heroes who lived next door to Doc Savage and The Shadow (both published, with Astounding, by Street & Smith.) For every writer who saw the literary utility of this new mode of writing with its contemporary language of ideas encoded in concrete metaphors, there were nine for whom those sleek and shiny phallic symbols of the Rocket Age weren’t exactly subtle and to whom the ideas they expressed weren’t exactly complicated. The lurid covers and exclamatory titles of the magazines promised cheap thrills, food pills, women with gills, heroes with skills, and aliens to kill.

Science Fiction or science fiction, it was ten percent Orwell and ninety percent ordure, ten percent Bester and ninety percent bullshit.

The Symbol That Ate the Text

We talk of science fiction as the literature of ideas, but all literature uses ideas; what distinguishes this particular mode is that those ideas are made flesh. Where a writer using mimesis expresses the dynamism of youth in a metaphor such as ‘the boy rocketed through the room’, a science fiction writer uses semiosis — signifying rather than representing — gives us an AI rocket with an adolescent joy in its own destructive force. This technique of conceit is extended metaphor taken to its ultimate, the symbol that ate the text, the vehicle of the metaphor often even unmoored from any tenor; the AI rocket with an adolescent joy in its own destructive force is just that, a figurative vehicle that carries into the reader’s imagination a whole host of tenors.

At a base level, plausibility and possibility are… relevant to this conceit, but their relevance is more complex than we’re given to believe. Yes, plausibility is brought into play down the line with futorological rationalisations, and critics of no less acumen than Clute and Delany have distinguished science fiction and fantasy on the basis of the subjunctivity levels of their very sentences, whether an event described “could happen” or “could not happen”. Both have assigned science fiction a subjunctivity level of “could happen,” fantasy a subjunctivity level of “could not happen.” At first glance, this seems so simple and obvious only a fool would deny it, science fiction limiting its conceits to the possibilities of the future, fantasy throwing off those shackles and running amok. But in a past or present tense narrative — and future tense narratives are few and far between — we are dealing with what “could have happened” and, like it or not, those technical impossibilities are still impossibilities. They do not, like metaphysical or logical impossibilities, have the harder-edged subjunctivity of “could not happen ever,” but they do fall into the domain of temporal impossibilities — things that “could not happen now.” This is what makes them incredible. Forget the plausibility for now; it’s that sense of incredibility that powers them.

I believe the term is “sense-of-wonder.”

If the potential of the mode lies in equipping a writer with a whole toolkit of such charged conceits, the downside of that toolkit is that it also allows a writer to pander to the most infantile wish-fulfilment or the most paranoid neuroses, to represent basic (and base) desires and fears in wholly superficial terms, to simply push the buttons for the sake of it. It always has been true and always will be. Walk into the SF Café twenty minutes into the future, slide into a booth with your iRobot mate, and if you look around you’ll see the genreheads wiring into the wonder. You’ll see those who happily accept the cheapest, crappiest junk as long as the price is low, the portions big, and the food comes fast and hot, smothered in ketchup, with crack cocaine for salt.

There’s a killer buzz to the games those Microself X-Books immerse you in. You too can save the world… from those evil, bug-eyed commies from space!

The influence of the juvenile market was not wholly malign, leading to a focus on clarity and simplicity, and thematic concerns beyond those of the middle-brow and middle-aged. So we had Ray Bradbury writing stories such as “All Summer In A Day” (published in F&SF in 1954), where a kid at school on Venus gets shoved in a closet by other children, misses a brief glimpse of the sun… which comes only once every seven years. This, along with many other stories are quite clearly aimed at adult sensibilities as much as at those of children. Bradbury may be sentimental about youth, nostalgia rather than angst powering much of his fiction, but his work is hardly shallow sensationalism; even those stories most imbued with wonder and creepiness display the thematic maturity of an adult writer using the worldviews of children as alterior perspectives on reality rather than simply seeking to capitalise on the crudity of their tastes.

We can contrast this however with works directly targeted at younger readers. Around the same time we have Robert A. Heinlein writing novels such as HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL (serialised in F&SF in 1958), where a kid with his own spacesuit has a romantic adventure in space — enacting the desire of the reader in his escape from mundane Middle-America to the Great Beyond, being kidnapped by malevolent aliens, saving the human race from destruction; there’s even a female child genius for the clever tomboys. ROCKET SHIP GALILEO with its Nazis on the moon, the frontier adventures of RED PLANET and FARMER IN THE SKY — it’s stating the obvious to say that these stories are aimed at adolescent sensibilities, but we tend to be disingenuous within the field about the extent to which these juveniles are at the root of a purportedly adult-oriented Science Fiction‘s genre cooties. Those uptight asswipes at the Bistro de Critique thinks it’s all fairy stories for children? No shit, Sherlock.

Sometimes when the symbol eats the text, the first thing it devours is any hint of fiction as something other than a means to an immersive end.

Nipples That Go Spung

But I don’t want to suggest that juvenile fiction is inherently lower quality, nor even that escapism and wish-fulfilment are bad things per se. Young Adult fiction may well be the freest category out there right now, openly defined by demographic rather than formal conventions. If you’ve got your snoot ready to cock at it, go read OCTAVIAN NOTHING. And if some kid — or adult — out in the world beyond the city of Writing wants to take a weekend city break in Genre, sit in the SF Café and — shock, horror — read a book I don’t rate, a book that offers nothing other than a temporary reprieve from the dreary nine-to-five, a retreat into immersive adventure… well, power to them. It might be me in there, you know, re-reading Edgar Rice because today I’m just not in the mood for Bill.

Still, there’s something about the truth of Sturgeon’s Law that we elide, about the particular nature of our particular crud. The commercial pressures on fiction aimed at juveniles in a conservative culture were formative in the field, having wide-ranging and long-lasting effects, not least in Heinlein’s work; we need only look at PODKAYNE OF MARS, bowdlerised by the publisher, Heinlein forced to revise the ending against his judgement, in order to see how these story-patterns limit the capacity of fiction to challenge a reader with, say, a tragic outcome for a beloved hero. This is how formulation works, how genre works. In Romance the expectation and demand is for the heroine to get together with the hero in the end. In Mystery the expectation and demand is for that mystery to be solved. In the Action-Adventure of the Hollywood schlockbuster the expectation and demand is for the hero(ine) to save the day at the end and be lauded for it. In every such genre there’s an audience that wants “more of the same” and writers out to supply that desire, not thwart it.

Romantic adventures bound to a narrative grammar where the hero cannot lose, loaded with wonder and wish-fulfilment, aimed at credulous adolescents who’re far more interested in the thrills and spills of the spectacle than what Richard Feynman has to say about the physics of a twirling, mutating dish moving through the air… here at the very core of the field of science fiction — Science Fiction even — in the work of one of its cardinal influences, one of the Big Three, we have much that the churlish intellectual might reject as fantasy. For all that those juveniles are generally well-crafted bildungsroman, with philosophical subtleties and social pertinence to their moral messages, they signify a return to the narrative logic of pulp where moral fibre and fortitude are written into the hero as champion, and instant karma awaits him/her in her/his inevitable victory.

If Heinlein initially published works which were clearly juvenile or adult, the distinction between these works quickly became muddled in a field catering to precocious adolescents and immature adults. STARSHIP TROOPERS may not be considered juvenile fiction now but it’s the classic example of the Science Fiction bildungsroman and was aimed for Scribner’s with the rest of them. Heinlein’s juveniles begin to bleed into his later works. THE ROLLING STONES, with its precocious child heroes, is linked into the same universe as THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS through the character of Hazel Stone, while the twins, Castor and Pollux reappear in THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST. As his novels degenerate into rambling exercises in hot air and cloying cuteness, they become increasingly emotionally retarded; they may offer a spur towards post-conventional morality for a questioning fourteen year old (for all that his manner is didactic and his message dubious, the individualist message invites the very dialogue that may destroy it,) but they hardly demonstrate the most mature approach to their themes, the quirky flavourings of the idiosyncratic ideologue ultimately drowned in the ketchup of redheaded twins and nipples that go spung.

The late Heinlein works gain an originality from his eccentric libertarian character, and before the slow slide into bloat and blather there’s some peachy stuff if you can get past the politics. But where Bradbury’s weird wonders, for all the nostalgia, lead via The Twilight Zone to Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and Disch’s “Descending,” in Heinlein’s overgrown Tom Swift, Juan “Johnnie” Rico, we might well trace one root of a grand oak of tosh and piffle that dominates the field. As that adult/adolescent market grew over time, and the work aimed at that market replicated and codified itself — its audience requiring consistency of effect more than novelty, seeking the stability and security of conventions, demanding “more of the same” — derivative, formulaic power fantasies of Space Opera and Military SF built on the foundations laid by the pulps, around the statue of The Boy/Man Hero erected by Heinlein, constructing a genre within science fiction that is neither juvenile nor adult but kind of just puerile.

I likes me some “Shit Blows Up” fiction, but this derring-do form, with its boys’ own tales of hardy heroes, grizzled old-timers, evil aliens and so on, is Science Fiction‘s version of the tales of orphan-princes permeating Fantasy. Both are ultimately defined by the strictures of genre — epic or heroic romantic adventures — and populist enough to have impressed a stereotype on the minds of the uninitiated. Down in the ghetto, in the SF Café, there are those who blame it all on cinema and television, mutter darkly about STAR WARS, how this and that movie or show is not really science fiction. Forget Flash Gordon. Forget Tom Swift. Forget the “fans are slans” nonsense. Forget Heinlein’s juveniles. Forget that the whole structure of a pulp genre is predisposed to produce pandering pabulum. It’s Hollywood to blame if the vast majority of the public think of science fiction as that puerile dross of formulaic genre … though as often as not they call it by another name.

Down in the ghetto, in the SF Café, there are those who grit their teeth and clench their fists whenever that dread name is spoken: Sci-Fi.

Spandex and Mullets

The distinction between science fiction and Sci-Fi is by no means universal within the community but for those who hold to it that term is loaded. For some sci-fi is just a shorthand for science fiction, sf, you know, that stuff we like, but for some that label signifies the pernicious influence of Fantasy, because that’s what they blame for corrupting the form with tosh and piffle. For some it signifies the pernicious influence of Hollywood, because that’s what they blame for diluting the form into tosh and piffle. For some it signifies the pernicious influence of the media, because that’s what they blame for presenting the form as tosh and piffle. For some it rather seems to signify the pernicious influence of fandom, because that’s who they blame for demanding the form be tosh and piffle.

Wherever Sci-Fi is reserved for the visual media or the pabulum in print, wherever the blame is placed, the distinction serves to segregate out “real” science fiction from formulation. Coined by uberfan Forrest Ackerman, the term has been reviled by science fiction writers from its origins. As a diminutive and a pun, it’s rather too cute and clever. It hints, perhaps, at a sort of baby-talk whereby Samuel R. Delany could be referred to as Sammy-Wammy, while Harlan Ellison would find himself saddled with Harley-Warley as his moniker. When I first started hanging out with other would-be writers at the SF Café, back in the early nineties, as a member of the GSFWC, I quickly realised how that term raised hackles. After a while, it became obvious it wasn’t just writers who hated it; it rubs readers up the wrong way too when Worldcon winding up in your home town leads to headlines like “Sci-Fi Freaks Beam Down to Glasgow.”

The irony is that many down in the SF Café have forgotten its origins; every so often you’ll hear grumbling about how literary fiction doesn’t suffer the indignity of a similarly demeaning sobriquet. Apart from disregarding the fairly common Pomo abbreviation for postmodernism and the coinage of Lit-Fic (which appears to also have its roots in the ghetto creole of Genre), this illusion of victimhood is disingenuous. It would be nice to imagine the label as an act of semantic marginalisation perpetrated by the elitists of Literature and mundanes of Mainstream, a deliberate dismissal with its roots — like the term “genre” — in the Culture Wars; but this is simply not the case. The label was created by us, taken up as a membership badge, printed on black T-shirts to be sold over the counter at the SF Café, worn with pride. We brought it on ourselves.

Still, there’s an undeniable irk invoked when we hear it in the mouths of idiots and ignorants who don’t know their Asimov from their Ellison, and this is not without good reason. In its uptake by the public at large it has become an index of ignorance. Their perceptions shaped by mass-market eye-candy, and by the stereotypes of subculture that impinge on their consciousness — media tie-ins, spin-offs, derivatives; the costumes and cranks of the convention scene — for the majority of the public that label means genre crap. It means the clunk-click plots and cardboard characters, power-fantasies and happy endings of the pulp idiom. It means sub-literate shit served up to sweaty-palmed geek-boys with a hard-on for gadgetry. It means adults playing dress-up when it’s not even Halloween.

When your aged Aunt Agnes sees Delany’s DHALGREN on your shelf and asks, Is that Sci-Fi? you know exactly what she’s thinking.

The term Sci-Fi signifies the sort of vacuum of critical nous that this same aged Aunt Agnes displays when she hears you playing your Sonic Youth album and complains that “all of that Heavy Metal stuff is just noise”. Her perception of rock music formed by fragmentary horrifying glimpses of Motley Crue, Whitesnake and Slayer on MTV back in the 80s, she hears those loud guitars and has no idea that there’s a difference between Heavy Metal and rock, that there’s punk rock, prog rock, post rock and more. It’s all just Heavy Metal to her, the shriek of guitars evoking an image in her mind’s eye — crude self-caricatures of posturing adolescent moppets in spandex and mullets. To that aged Aunt Agnes, similarly, Sci-Fi is a strange unfathomable spectre shaped from prejudice and preconceptions: the literary equivalent of spandex and mullets.

So we cringe at her question. It’s not Sci-Fi, we wince. It’s science fiction. What we are trying to articulate here is that their image of science fiction as genre is erroneous, that their image of genre is erroneous, that science fiction is unbound by the constraints they imagine. The science fiction we assert in opposition to Sci-Fi is its antithesis. It is not even Science Fiction; it is not a genre but a genre, with all the undefineable diversity that entails. It is the equal of Literature, if not better because it is not constrained by the dictates of mundane realism.

It fucking rocks. Don’t box it in with a cutesy little monicker. It’s not Sci-Fi, we say. It’s science fiction.

And we strop off down to the SF Café where everyone’s calling it skiffy.

Because It’s There

That discomfort has still deeper roots though. The trivialising diminutive is abhorred not just as a token of the outsider’s disregard for actual literary achievements, but as the ultimate emblem of uncritical devotion, of the insider’s disregard for quality, of the indiscriminate appetite for any old shite with a spaceship. Applied commonly to the most schlocky written, cinematic or televisual crud, the term is now inextricably bound to the image of the adolescent fan with little-to-no critical faculties and an obsessive-compulsive urge to buy every book in a series, every book by a certain author, any book about X, Y or Z, regardless of quality. It reminds us of those grown men or women who continue consuming formulaic drivel most 14-year-olds would scoff at, and of the hacks ready to supply the demands of that juvenile market, not for a little escapism, but for a wholesale retreat from adulthood.

Which is to say, it reminds us of ourselves, a part of us that relished and still relishes the schlock. We are the market that bought that schlock as kids. We are the market that still buys that schlock when we feel the urge for a little brain-out, sponge-in, sit-back-and-enjoy-it, eyeball-kicks. We are the market that buys the latest novel in a series long since degenerated into drivel. We are the market that watches Andromeda, Babylon 5, Carnivale, Dark Skies, Enterprise, Farscape, Genesis II, Heroes, Invasion, Jericho, Lost, Millenium, Night Stalker, The Outer Limits, Planet of the Apes, Quantum Leap, Red Dwarf, Space: Above & Beyond, Total Recall 2070, UFO, V, War of the Worlds, The X-Files, you name it, zzzzzzzzzz… Sometimes we do it because the series is good. Sometimes we do it simply because it’s there.

We insist that science fiction is not Sci-Fi. For some in the ghetto of Genre this is axiomatic. We genreheads think we know the secret truth, that there is real science fiction and there’s that Sci-Fi shit. That crud is not the real deal, we tell ourselves, just the factory-line commercial product, extruded according to a formula, shat out in a turd of a movie or a TV show, a media tie-in or an Nth generation copy of a hack-job of a rip-off of an insult to the word novel. It’s the high-profile, low-quality dreck that gives the genre its bad rep. But it’s what the genrephobes are thinking of when they dismiss science fiction because that’s what we, the fans, God bless us, have saddled ourselves with in lapping up every hokey, cheesy, cliched pukeball of a B-movie with a spaceship in it, spewed out by the Ed Woods of the world. It is our desire for “more of the same” that transforms genre into genre.

The term Sci-Fi signifies all the uncritical ardour we seek to distance ourselves from in our quest for acceptance, in a deep desire to be taken seriously. We can hardly deny the actuality of the puerile, formulaic tosh that gets sold as Science Fiction; so we abject it as Sci-Fi and distinguish the “real” science fiction out from it on the basis of quality. It is a different abjection to that carried out on Fantasy (at once more direct in its targeting of genre rather than the scapegoat symbols of the fantastic, and more deluded in its denial of our own desires), but it is still an abjection, a recoiling in repulsion from that which is essentially a part of ourselves. Here’s the logic of that abjection:

If it’s sci-fi, it must be bad. If it’s good, it can’t be sci-fi.

Sound familiar?

Dogfight at the SF Café

It was a merry day in the SF Café, sometime around the middle of the last century, when the newspaper reporter and the moviemaker arrived, hearing about this crazy joint so full of stories… so full of Story. There were kids running around with little toy rocket ships, teenagers talking astronomy in the booths, adults speaking Esperanto at each other cause it was the language of the future. There were atheists and madmen. There was futurology and fantasia. And there was a big bold sign above the door that had once read The Science Fiction Café… only some of those letters had been taken down now, stuck up in the window to spell out: “cenection.” See, it’s cause we’re all connected , someone explained to the reporter as he looked up at the sign that now read The Sci Fi Café. Connection, cenection. You see? Ain’t that cute? If there was a writer at the bar, slamming his head repeatedly into the counter, no one paid any attention to his mutterings about a pun on “hi-fi” sounding lame now, never mind in fifty-something years. Except for the stranger who was there to spectate, who said something about “wi-fi” being all cool and stuff by then… but it still sounding lame.

The name does suck, I say, it surely does. But I don’t buy it as a label for the Enemy Within, see that whole ruction as just another discourse of abjection like that between Science Fiction and Fantasy, a wedge of subjectivity and inconsistency driven deep into the definitional integrity of the field. A fantastic genre that is neither fantasy (according to the Science Fiction genreheads) nor generic (according to the science fiction scribblemonkeys)? In this diverse field bound by a loose affiliation of reader tastes under the catch-all term of science fiction, these definitions by negation found our ideas of what does or does not constitute the family in little more than personal whim, in exclusions (that is, abjections) based on individual preference and value judgements.

If it’s good, it must be science fiction. If it’s bad, it must be sci-fi.

Old Man Campbell’s rules were never set in stone and we recognise this nowadays in marking out the Science Fiction which has solid futurology at its core as Hard Science Fiction. We recognise it when we acknowledge as science fiction that mass of stuff sold in the same magazines, on the same bookshelves, which never really gave a flying fuck about futurology, but which simply used the tropes and techniques to its own ends, whether the aim was to tickle the cerebral cortex or the sense-of-wonder gland. Or we deny it, write Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and John Carter out of the picture, pretend Gernsback didn’t talk of “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” pretend Astounding didn’t share its crib with Doc Savage and The Shadow, pretend Star Wars isn’t more like E.E. “Doc” Smith than Primer is. There’s plenty of pulpy powerhousing that barely glances off science in its search for scenery and props, conventions or conceits, symbols to be exploited by a writer more concerned with telling a ripping yarn or exploring the human condition (or better still both) than with science per se. It’s still science fiction.

Or maybe it isn’t.

It seems to me the fractious factions in the SF Café tore the whole notion of science fiction apart a ways back. The latent conflict between aesthetics of the logical and the sublime, that old Rationalist/Romanticist dichotomy, became overt in the abjection of Fantasy. Once that other battle-line was drawn between science fiction and Sci-Fi, a battle-line that is, in essence, a recapitulation of the Literature/Genre turf war, the SF Café became a rumble zone of rival gangs, each marginalising themselves by staking out their own special territories defined by overlapping and orthogonal agendas — futurological, fantastic, literary, commercial. It’s a wild show, sitting at the counter, watching the killzone of crossfire between these forces. It’s a spectacle alright, watching this many-headed mongrel warhound mode of pulp modernism trying to rip its own throats out cause it smelled the scent of its own piss and didn’t recognise it. It’s bloodsport night, at the SF Café, Cerberus versus Cerberus — the new evolved Mark Three hellhound too, with an extra head or two as biomods. Bugger of it is, I can’t decide whether I’ve got a dog in this fight or all of them.

Hey, wait! That new head there is trying to play pack leader, assert its taxonomic dominance as an umbrella term for the entire discourse of idioms. Which one’s that? Princess Rexatroyd Speculative Frou-Frou Fiction the Third?

Oh, man, Sci-Fi and Science Fiction are both going for it big time.

Ooh, that’s nasty.